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Flavors of the Caribbean

Photo: Ground mace, courtesy kevindooley.
 

When I moved to Birmingham in 2000 I was introduced to a quaint little walk-up restaurant with outdoor seating by the name of Tasty Jamaica. When I walked up to the the window, the aromas of jerk chicken, sweet bread and ginger filled my nose. I ordered a dinner of oxtails, rice and peas, mac 'n' cheese and plantains with a Ting (a ginger soda). This became my monthly treat to myself.

About two years ago I went through a serious Caribbean cooking phase. I  stocked my pantry with the basic herbs and spices of the cuisine. It's amazing what can be done once you know a regional flavor profile. For 6 months straight I transformed my everyday meals into Caribbean masterpieces. I made everything from meat loaf to beef stew using these spices:

bay leaves
cinnamon
cloves
garlic
ginger
nutmeg (mace)
peppers
peppercorns
pimento (allspice)
saffron
thyme
turmeric
vanilla

This past week I had a craving for some of those now-familiar flavors. The restaurant I loved has since closed so I once again headed to the market to stock up on spices. This time I chose a less traditional, but more cost-effective route: spice blends from Spice Islands and Spice Hunter. Not only are some available in a salt-free variety, they are actually pretty close to the real thing.

I made the most amazing meal of stewed oxtails, rice and pigeon peas, beef patties, and skillet plantains. I used canned pigeon peas instead of dried ones  as a shortcut. If you can't find them canned, try the freezer section. Goya products are great when it comes to preparing Caribbean, Mexican, and South American cuisine. Here is my personal simple rice and peas recipe, a great side dish for any occasion. (Note: It wasn't put through the regular Test Kitchens testing process.) Regular long-grain rice works fine, but I prefer the sweetness of Jasmine.

Rice and Pigeon Peas
1 cup Jasmine rice
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup lite coconut milk, divided
1 cup canned or frozen Goya pigeon peas
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

1. Combine rice, water, and 1/2 cup coconut milk in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; cover and reduce heat to low. Cook 20 minutes or until  liquid is absorbed.
2. Stir in remaining 1/4 cup coconut milk and remaining ingredients.